Canada has a new culture capital and it's one big urban surprise, writes Aaron Peasley.
It's just a regular night at the Gladstone. In the hotel's rough-hewn Melody Bar, a septuagenarian songstress wearing sensible shoes, a velour leisure suit and a fanny pack is putting her own raspy vocal stamp on the croontastic old song Satin Sheets. A ragtag group, including several fellow karaoke enthusiasts, skinny-jeaned hipsters and local bar flies look on with varying degrees of interest. Next door, in one of the hotel's exhibition spaces, a performance art piece is taking place, with a young, well-heeled crowd spilling out onto the street.
I weave a path through the crowded lobby and past the reception desk, where the hotel's unofficial ambassador and official lift operator, Hank Young, greets me with an affable grin. Known as the Gladstone Cowboy, Hank is a country singer and Halifax refugee who made his way to Toronto in the early 1960s. Dressed in a suede, tasselled jacket, dazzling Stetson, black bolo tie and a formidable pair of boots, Hank certainly looks the part. As the manually operated Victorian lift rumbles into gear, Hank massages his moustache and laughs: "The Gladstone isn't your average hotel."
The oldest continuously running hotel in Toronto, the Gladstone was built in 1889 on what was then the western edge of the city. After a long period of decline, the gracious Victorian building was rescued in 2002, undergoing a lengthy restoration that was completed in 2005.
Hank is right: the Gladstone is no mere hotel. In the four years since its re-opening, Toronto's quirkiest hotel has emerged as ground zero for the city's DIY art-quake, a cherished neighbourhood watering hole and host to as many as 100 events each month including screenings, music performances and gallery openings.
Vancouver may be primping for its big Olympic moment early next year but if you're looking for an emerging capital of culture, head further east to flourishing Toronto. From the Gladstone and the bohemian Queen Street West area it inhabits, to the city's much buzzed-about film industry, the new Toronto is determined to shed its dowdy reputation of a "New York run by the Swiss".
And where would an ambitious would-be cultural capital be without a few shiny architectural showpieces to usher in a new era? For decades, Canada's largest city lacked a firm civic identity, the exception perhaps being the enormous Jetsons-style CN tower. While the tower continues to loom high above the city, Torontonians are now shifting their architectural identity to a clutch of new projects designed by internationally recognised names (call them starchitects, if you must).
The building getting the most attention is the new Frank Gehry-designed addition to the venerable Art Gallery of Ontario. If anyone can put Toronto on the international culturati map, it's native-boy-done-good Frank, who, until now, hadn't designed so much as a house in his hometown.
Since reopening in November, the AGO has become a glamorous new emblem of the city's billion-dollar culture boom, costing the city more than $300 million. Gehry acolytes be warned: don't expect the audacious metallic gum-wrapper curves of Bilbao's Guggenheim. This is a more muted kind of masterpiece.
The architect's vision is best appreciated once inside the Galleria Italia, which extends along the entire front of the museum. The sensational space is bathed in natural light and supported by decorative beams made of douglas fir.
Just 18 months before Gehry cast his spell, another celebrated architect, Daniel Libeskind, created a sensation with his expansion of the Royal Ontario Museum, home to Canada's most important collection of natural and cultural artefacts.
Resembling a futuristic crystal meteorite that had plummeted into the existing museum, the Michael Lee-Chin crystal was a bold and controversial architectural foray, not to mention a stunning departure from the staid Victorian museum model.
Both architectural projects, as well as Will Alsop's "flying tabletop" and the new Four Seasons Opera House, have pushed Toronto closer to the goals set out in the city's 2003 Culture Plan for the Creative City, a decade-long strategy that sought to position the city as a leading global cultural capital, energised by artists, performers and creative thinkers.
Geographically, Toronto certainly lends itself to the formation of vibrant creative communities. A sprawled mosaic of ethnic and social enclaves, the city feels like one big surprise, with layers to be unwrapped and discovered. After 40 years of immigration, the city is also one of the most culturally diverse places on the planet, with more than half of the city's residents born outside Canada and more than 150 languages spoken.
There's buzzy Leslieville, with its boutiques and handsome antique stores, and stylish Yorkville, once the centre of the city's counterculture and now an upscale district of designer stores and expensive galleries.
But for now, the area claiming the hip 'hood mantle is the booming Queen Street West area, anchored by two boutique hotels, the Gladstone and the Drake, located just a few hundred metres apart.
Like its brethren in other cities (Williamsburg, New York, comes to mind), the street has experienced quite the reversal in the past couple of years, transformed from a low-rent fringe into a lively and increasingly swish area. A hodgepodge of white goods stores, independent art galleries, fashion boutiques and slick restaurants, new and improved Queen Street West flaunts its diversity. Like a sandpit for adults, the neighbourhood is a place of experimentation, where carefully dishevelled artists hang out in cafes and art galleries have taken over abandoned storefronts. The restaurant scene is equally dynamic, with many mixed-use spaces such as Camera, a paean to cocktails and cinema, owned by filmmaker Atom Egoyan (of the upcoming film Chloe).
Several blocks west of Camera, the Drake Hotel is buzzing with talk of an imminent Orlando Bloom sighting. No longer content to wait for an injection of Hollywood glam during its annual film festival, celebrity sightings are now a regular occurrence in this part of town. With its elegant rooftop terrace, glitzy cocktail bar and stylish Scandinavian "crash pads" the hotel has become a preferred address for visiting celebrities and those who want something different from the chain hotels springing up downtown. The Drake, like the Gladstone, professes to be all about the culture (there's an in-house curator and regular roster of performances), but when I visit all thoughts seem to be on partying.
Back at the Gladstone, the art is not confined to the lobby and various gallery spaces. Local artists commissioned by the hotel's owner, Christina Zeidler, designed each of the 37 guest rooms.
The decor ranges from the racy (a neon grill on the window in one room exudes an '80s music-video vibe) to the whimsical (one room is decorated like a teenage girls', complete with posters of Tom Cruise and Matt Dillon).
My room was the work of Bruno Billio, the Gladstone's own artist in residence, who rendered the walls a deep bordello-chic vermilion, modified the furniture and installed a floating string installation in the ceiling. When it comes time to turn in I notice a set of earplugs by the bed. It turns out I'll need them. Two floors below, a thrash metal art band is doing their thing and the rumbles of the nocturnal 501 Red Rocket continue through the night.
With help from my earplugs I become accustomed to the noise, reminding myself that the Gladstone is not your average hotel, just as Toronto is no longer your average city.
The writer was a guest of Tourism Toronto.
Qantas flies daily to Toronto via Los Angeles. Air Canada flies daily to Toronto via Vancouver. For a side trip from the northern US, opt for Porter Airlines, which flies directly into the city's downtown airport (flyporter.com).